Discourse in December

"In the depth of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer"

Albert Camus

 

December for most of us conjures up thoughts of holidays gatherings, snow, and the real beginning of winter. Some people like the wintry conditions and revel in outdoor activities, while others simply hibernate until the weather warms again. As a gardener, I look forward to planning for the year ahead, and use the slow time to hopefully get ahead in some garden chores that are always on the back burner (like labelling, garden plans, herbal crafts, etc).

The Winter Solstice, when the tilt of the earth is furthest from the sun, results in the shortest day of the year for those in the latitudes between the Tropic of Cancer and Capricorn. Solstice literally means "sun" and "stand still", which certainly seems true as we experience the least amount of daylight in the year. Around the world, people have recognized this occurence, and many cultures have held rituals, festivals and the like, in the hopes of ensuring that the growing season will return. The months between January and April were often known as the Famine Months, a time when starvation was common and many were not assured of living through the winter.

One of the earliest festivals was that of Saturnalia. In Roman mythology, Saturn ruled during the Golden Age, a time of peace and harmony. He was the god of fertility, especially agriculture, and was often depicted with a sickle. During the feast of Saurnalia, schools were closed, no wars could be waged, master and slave were considered equals, and gifts were exchanged. It was a time of merriment and great fun. Saturn was also associated with the closing of accounts, which would take place at the end of the year, in order to start fresh for the new year. Saturn's Greek counterpart, Kronus, was similarly depicted, and since kronus was the word for time, we see the image of a man with a sickle become Father Time, saying goodbye to the old year and welcoming the new.

It is interesting to note how many diverse cultures celebrated this critical time of year, and how much the rituals overlap. The Chinese and other East Asians celebrate The Extreme of Winter - a time for family to get together. They make and eat Tangyaun, balls of glutinous rice, which symbolize family unity and prosperity.

The Festival of the Sun marked the Winter Solstice for the Incans. There was a large stone column called Intihuatana, to which priests tried to tie the sun to prevent it from escaping. In India, Makara Sankranti is celebrated. In some areas, kites are flown all day and into the night, celebrating and welcoming the longer days to come.

The Night of Winter is still unofficially observed throughout Kurdistan. The longest night of the year symbolizes the victory of light over darkness and a rebirth of the sun. Large feasts and the giving of sweets to children play a large part in the festivities. All these rituals are designed to give hope to their belief that summer will, indeed, come again.

So, as we wait for the increase in daylight to begin, we join with others past and present and hope for rebirth in the coming year. The seed catalogs are arriving daily, and planning for a bountiful harvest begins anew. Happy holidays, and peace to all,

Karen